I don’t think I had ever met anyone who had been to public school until I went to work for a certain liberal newspaper. Possibly I was naïve, though I had been round the world and had countless other jobs. I left school at sixteen because I hated it, so I thought anyone with a braincell would too. I was wrong.

This new species did not talk directly about what school they had been to but lapsed in meetings to endless metaphors about cricket, ties, clubs or, for a change, rugby. They all shared certain reference points. They lacked interest in anyone who was not one of them, which is not what you want in a journalist. At first, I was intimidated by them because they seemed to know a lot of facts. Dates specifically. History was reducible to their ability to memorise battles. The ability to analyse, observe and connect – the things I consider make a person clever – were not the things they valued. Yet of course I was bowled over by their self-confidence as they would come up with a totally mundane suggestion that they considered to be a novel and astute idea. I am sure those guys speak highly of me too.

At another liberal newspaper, a well-known bien-pensant asked me where I educated my children. “At the local school.” “You mean you have them hanging round in the evenings?” Yeah, it’s a drag isn’t it? Kids existing 24 hours a day. Maybe have them taken into care instead? Or pay the average salary to have them fed, watered, educated and given a leg up in life. If that is what you choose to do, at least be honest about it. No more sob stories about how your child is so especially gifted they cannot manage in a state school. Tell it how it is. We know the figures. The seven per cent of children who are privately educated will go on to run the media, the judiciary, parliament.

Don’t bleat on about VAT, charitable status, bursaries for “poor children”, who account for barely one per cent of private school pupils (if that).

Instead, be happy you get what you pay for. Pupils who consider themselves to somehow be making it through life on their own sheer brilliance, even though they are spoon-fed everything, and some of the thick ones get into Oxbridge. What you get in self-confidence, you lose in self-awareness. It would be funny if it were not actually harmful. Take Rory Stewart, who almost gets it, and then doesn’t. In an interview he mused, “There must be something strange about Eton that so many people that went there want to be MPs.” What shall we call that strange thing? An all-male environment where one is taught to revere the royals, the establishment, politics as part of the great game? He admits: “It made me very bad at dealing with women.”

We have been governed long enough by the products of the best public schools

What always strikes me about those who opt out of state education is their lack of trust in their own children. Or indeed other people’s. Instead of assuming one’s offspring may be bright enough to cope, the assumption appears to be that some children are so special they need to be segregated from others. From other classes. And, let’s face it, from other ethnicities. Of course, it is not phrased like that among the “Vote Labour, Live Tory” types, but dig a little and it is there.

State schools have myriad problems but pushy parents only improve them. The real issues are appalling literacy and numeracy rates in certain areas, but my view is that if your kid can read and write who cares about the cello? Before you ask: yes, mine are all graduates so the sacrifice I made for my principles (not one I could ever have afforded anyway) wasn’t actual child abuse.

If you won’t invest in the state system, it won’t improve. And we have been governed long enough by the products of the best public schools to surely know that education ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. The cruelty of austerity imposed by Cameron and Osborne has hollowed out our country, the duplicity of Johnson has made us a laughing stock, the inability of that living emoji Rishi Sunak to actually lead… shall I go on?

Before you tell me old Etonians are not all like that… yeah, I know. I have met the hippy ones, the actor ones, the apologetic ones, the ones who hated public school but are sending their own kids back there, which is its own sadistic pathology. The ones you never meet, though, are the ones who think their schools are “not all like that”. They are taught to believe in private-school values. This is but one of the reasons public schools should be abolished. The most obvious one is, as Alan Bennett said, that: “Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it or should. And if their education ends without it dawning on them then that education has been wasted.”

It never dawns on most of them because fundamentally none of this is about education but the most basic kind of social engineering. Education is learning about the world we live in, which includes all kinds of people. It requires humility, curiosity, the ability to admit one’s lack of knowledge. Truly educated people know just how much they don’t know. Stupid people never really do. But you don’t learn that on the playing fields of whichever charitable institution you send your special sprogs to. You simply want the best for them.
Unlike the rest of us, I presume.

Suzanne Moore is a journalist. Her substack “Letters from Suzanne” can be found at suzannemoore.substack.com

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Columns, June / July 2024, Opinions, Viewpoint

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